So while I was in South Africa I met this cat named William. He sat next to me on the back row of a minibus on the way to Jeffreys Bay. It was a short ride, maybe 30 minutes, but he got deep pretty quickly. He told me that he was from Malawi and he was in SA trying to make money to send back to his family. Currently, his brother and sisters could not afford school fees and needed help. He said I should help them. At this point I did not plan on going through Malawi, I told him I didn’t know how I could help, we exchanged phone numbers and he jumped off in Jeffreys Bay, I continued on to the next town. William called me consistently since our meeting, about twice a week, and just asked me how my travels were going. Our conversations never lasted more than a minute. By the time I was leaving South Africa, I had pretty much decided to come to Malawi. People would randomly tell me that the lake is beautiful and the people are the best. In one conversation with William, I told him that I planned to travel through his country, he asked that I call him when I was there.
My travel to Malawi was not the best. I took a bus from Lusaka to the border town of Chipata on Sunday night. The bus arrived at about 1am, I was told I could sleep on the bus until morning. This was true, except the lights were on inside the bus the whole night as the bus was being cleaned. Not the best rest. I took a shared taxi to the border once it was light and crossed the border. I was fortunate to find a shared taxi from the border to Lilongwe, I thought I was gonna have to change taxis in the first town, which meant waiting for a car to fill up. So I got to Lilongwe early in the day, found my hostel, and got a good few hours of sleep. When I woke up mid-afternoon, my first task was to follow through on my promise to call William. I expected him to immediately give me instructions on how to find his family and help them, he simply asked how my travels were and wished me well. He called me the next night and asked where I was, I told him I was in Nkhotakota, and planned to travel to Nkhata Bay the next day. He told me his family lived in Nkhata Bay, and gave me their # and said I should call them. I told him I would call them in the morning.
This was possibly my most frustrating minibus day. I first had about a 60km ride to the town of that went fast and smooth. There I was put on a pickup truck for the first half of the remaining 130 km to Nkhata Bay. The truck was interesting, we averaged about 20 people with all types of cargo….dead fish, cooking supplies, building supplies….it was really tight, each movement to increase comfort was a risk because if the move turned out bad, the vacated space would closed, there was no going back. I was standing face to face with Vincent, we talked a bit, I was envious of his position because he was standing straight up while I was twisted and leaning against a metal bar. Then I realized he was standing on his own foot. The truck emptied gradually and we were put on a minibus for the remainder of the trip. Overall this 200km trip took about 5 hours. The frustrating part was the amount of stops. We stopped every few km, the constant starting and stopping and winding and moving and packing and unpacking got tiring. I figured it was just me, Vincent was also frustrated, he said the trip was supposed to take 2 hours from Dangwa, he must have exaggerated, it would take almost 2 hours driving with a personal vehicle, but 3 might be reasonable. Vincent works in a factory in Dangwa, he had worked from 10pm to 7am, he had the day to travel to Nkhata Bay to meet with someone, then he had to return for work that night. He told me he gets paid MK67 for a day’s work. $1=MK150. I hope I misunderstood somehow, things are inexpensive in Malawi, but that would be hard to make ends meet. I think he is in his early twenties and he still lives with his parents, so I guess living in a joint household might make the wage feasible.
So we eventually arrived in Nkhata Bay, it is a tourist town. I saw the bay from the hill entering the town, it is very small, I think there is lots of natural beauty around the town, but I didn’t see it. I was immediately pounced upon by various tourism specialists, asking where I was staying and what I planned to do and so on. They were easier than usual to push away with Vincent to walk with. I called William’s family, expecting to learn the lived just up this road, or a few km in that direction. Williams brother Harry answered, I was not able to communicate well with him, so I gave the phone to Vincent, he explained to me that they live about 60km back the way we came and Harry was waiting at the bus stop for me. My initial reaction was there was no way I was going to backtrack. We had a beer and I got a bit more perspective, I figured if this kid is waiting at the bus stop all day for me, I should show up. I did a couple things in Nkhata Bay and Vincent saw his friend. We headed back after about 3 hours, it was nice to have Vincent to return with as well to make sure I got to the right place.
I did not really know why I was meeting up with Williams family, I knew William was trying to support them from SA, I knew they didn’t have school fees, but that’s about it. The bus stop I got off at was Kande beach, I had quick farewell with Vincent, and met up with Harry. At this point I had been in Malawi for 3 days and had only seen the beautiful lake I came for from a distance. I hoped that this would be my opportunity, if “beach” was in the name of the town, they must stay by the lake. They could take me out in a canoe, show me how they fish and introduce me to their lake. Alas, we immediately turned away from the lake and walked a few km into the hills. We got to their hut just as the last light of the day was fading. On the walk up Harry explained to me the struggles of his family. We struggled to communicate, but his English was far better than my Chichewe. His parents had died about 7 years ago. His grandmother was raising the four children, three now that William is in SA. He told me he is 15, but the birthday he wrote down would have him turning 17 in October. The next sister, Avera, is turning 15 in a couple weeks, and the youngest, Azil is about 12. When I arrived at their hut, their grandmother greeted me, and through Harry, told me about their struggles. Their home is also not in great shape, it is made of brick with a tin roof, there is one bed, the roof is missing a piece, the windows are not covered, the brick is falling in some places, there was almost nothing in the hut besides clothes, they all sleep on the floor besides their Grandmother. I hadn’t really thought much about what they would ask of me when I came to visit, but it was obvious they had plans for me. I told them we would look into schools in the morning and that is how I could help them. I have thought of sponsoring a child in a poor nation on multiple occasions, it would have been so easy to just give my credit card number to an organization, but it seems I always find a difficult way of doing something.
With the business of my visit on hold until morning, I was served Nsima and fish. Nsima is made from dried Kasava, the Kasava is dried, ground then cooked in water. It think I explained Pap in SA, every region of Africa has it’s versions of this ground something type dish, sorry for my inability to describe it. I folded here. I like Nsima, but it was weird to eat it without a saucy thing. I ate a couple of the small fish, then had a few handfuls of Nsima, but I didn’t want to eat much of their food. This event will return tomorrow night. As would be expected, they didn’t really know what to do with me, my thoughts were everywhere, and I was tired from way too much time on minibuses. We talked a bit, mostly I just wanted to lay on my back and stare at the stars. I showed them my computer, they had never really used one, but there is not much to do with it. I asked what they usually do at night, the answer was go to sleep. Their Grandmother went to bed first. When I came in a while later, I was directed to her bed, she was already laying on the floor in the other room. I thought this may happen earlier, but I dismissed it, I figured there was no way an older woman would give her bed. I am always torn in these instances, I want to go along with whatever customs are present, but this seemed to much. I tried to argue, but it failed, and I was placed in the only bed in the house.
We started on our mission to sort out their schools in the morning. I thought this meant walking to the schools in Kande and paying school fees. This was not the case. The school system in Malawi is in bad shape. It seems like most children have free access to a Primary school, up through 8th grade. I don’t know much about the learning environment, but it seems the class sizes are large and the teachers are under qualified. Students have to pass exams to complete primary school, some schools have very low pass rates due to the teaching. There are not enough qualified teachers in Malawi, and because of this, the government has an abbreviated teacher training school to fill the gaps, creating more under qualified teachers. The problem is even worse at the secondary level where teachers who are not able to teach the primary school material are pushed into more advanced secondary school positions. So again, most kids have access to free primary school, and there are also private primary schools with boarding facilities which I have been told are of a better quality. It seems a small percentage get to secondary school. The government, churches(Catholic and Prebyterian are prominent in Malawi) and the private sector combine in different ways to provide secondary education. The private schools have different standards for accepting students. Some will accept them as long as they passed their exams at the end of primary school and they can pay the fees, some have other exams and performance standards. Private schools are either created by established educators, a church , or some other organization. Some are boarding, some are not. Many students find boarding near private schools that do not have facilities because secondary schools are few and far between. Now I do not completely understand the government/church relationship, but it seems that the government runs secondary schools alongside either the Catholic or Presbyterian church. Either entity can grant admission to a student, the government chooses students have performed especially well in primary school and on their exams, churches choose students who have been involved with them previously. It seems that these schools are the most desired, they provide good quality education with reasonable fees, but again, you must be chosen. So there is my attempt to explain education in Malawi.
So instead of walking down to Kande beach, I learned that we were getting on minibuses and traveling to schools in the area. There was no secondary school in Kande, and the feeling was the primary school in Kande was not very good, so we were also looking for a boarding school for Azil. Our search was very inefficient, but I had no clue where to start so I trusted Harry. Our first stop was a boarding school up by Nkhata Bay, you can imagine my excitement to travel that stretch of road again. The youngest one felt my pain, she threw up mostly out the window of the minibus, our fellow travelers were not so pleased. We got out of the minibus just before Nkhata Bay, it turned out we went too far, we had about a 45 minute walk back up the road before we found the school. So this was an all boys boarding school in the Catholic/government category, so Harry would not be admitted unless the Bishop or Minister of Education granted permission. I could go up the road another 40km to Mzuzu to make this request. The school had a non-boarding open school that only had classes for a couple hours in the afternoon, and Harry would have to find his own boarding nearby. I took all their contact information and we moved on. Our next stop was almost all the way back to Kande, there was a primary and secondary boarding school for girls in Bandawe. The primary school was easy, as long as I could pay the money, Azil could attend the school. We ran into the same problem again at the secondary school, I needed the blessing of big people in Mzuzu, this time from the Presbetery. The headmaster of the primary school was very helpful, he gave me some names of private secondary boarding schools, we called one in Mzuzu, they would need to pass an entrance exam, and the fees were a lot for me to take on. So after a day of little progress but lots of learning, we headed for home. I asked if we could stop by Kande Beach, I felt like I should at least greet the lake. I thought it must close to the road, I don’t know why I assume things. We arrived at the beach after about 45 minutes of walking. We sat for about 20 minutes. I met a man at the beach who was from Mzuzu, he recommended I go to the various offices and plead my case. We started the trek back to the road, then up the path to their hut. We arrived at with the last bits of light. I told them I would go to Mzuzu in the morning and keep trying. They served me rice because they had decided that I didn’t like Nsima. I didn’t eat enough the night before. I was upset they had made a special meal for me because I didn’t like their traditional food, I tried to convince them that I liked it, and they lied to me and said they didn’t like rice and I must eat it all. Oh well, such are the growing pains in cross cultural relationships.
I went to bed…and woke up debating how I should help them. The primary school is $300 per year for everything(fees, room, board). The government secondary schools are about the same. The expensive secondary school is about $900 for everything for a year. It is insanely cheap, but beyond my pockets right now. I decided I can drop about $1000 for the year on this, the expensive school, if they got in, would put me over $2000. There are a few other small costs as well, uniforms and supplies and the like. And then there is the house. Should I give them money to improve the house? Or are there other important needs? There is no point in paying for their education if there are other barriers that will hold them back. And then there is AIDS. Are they sexually active? Have they learned about AIDS in their primary school? Did their parents die from AIDS? Did any of them contract AIDS in utero? This is a terrible investment if they die in their twenties.
From the beginning I have thought about logic of this investment. It is risky. I don’t know this family. I don’t get the impression they excel academically. There are probably more effective ways I could invest in education in Malawi. I also hope to learn what those ways might be….so far it seems teacher training is the greatest need. But because William asked me for help on the minibus, and I told him I would see what I could do, and I ended up traveling the road right by his family, and they made me Nsima, and then rice, I am committed to helping them. It’s the kind of help I do not like to give, based on relationship instead of a thorough problem solving process. But at the same time, it is a very small amount of money, and like so many others, these people will have little ability to provide for themselves without more education. I don’t know, I will learn something from this I’m sure.
So I am typing this in Mzuzu. I took Harry with me for my favorite minibus ride to Nkhota Bay this morning. I gave him some money for costs to start school…application fees, travel, materials, whatever else. I gave him some money to improve their hut as well, it won’t last long, but hopefully it will help a bit. I spoke with him as best I could about his responsibility in this whole thing, taking care of himself and his sisters, AIDS, and how he must always be honest with me. These are tough things to communicate with the language barrier. I think we are on the same page. In the end, he said “you must trust me and I must trust you.” I jumped on a minibus to Mzuzu, he returned to Kande. My first stop in Mzuzu was the Synod of Livingstonia (the Presbetery for the region). I figured I would try to get Azera in Bandawe along with her sister. I was able to speak with the head of education, he told me we would have to wait to see if any of the invited girls failed to take their spot, then he could consider other applicants. I do not want to leave this hanging. The Synod also runs a private school southwest of Kande. It would be a 5-6 hour minibus ride for them, but it is a boarding school with a more reasonable price and acceptance seems likely. I may get information on a few other schools as well. I don’t like the idea of separating their family, but they don’t seem to have much of a problem with it, they know struggle in a way I never will, they understand further education can give them a real chance. Without it, their only option will be to subsist on kasava prepared in various forms. They told me this leaves them hungry. So no other cost or sacrifice will be considered against the opportunity for education. I spoke with a few people in the education department about my Presbyterian background, I am staying at their hostel tonight. Tomorrow, it is on to Tanzania.